"Bartleby": Representation, Reproduction and the Law

Article excerpt

By the time Melville completed Pierre, he had become profoundly skeptical about the ability of language to penetrate beneath the surface of appearances and reveal something about the mystery underlying reality. His hero's dilemma expressed this skepticism. As far as one went down into the world, it was found to consist of "surface stratified on surface. To its axis, the world being nothing but superinduced superficies" (Melville 285). At the core of experience was a void. The center of the world had turned out to be an empty room containing a sarcophagus, but no body (285). Similarly, the fate of his hero as a young American author paralleled and parodied Melville's own literary career. After the dismal reception accorded to Pierre, Melville may have become exhausted by his efforts and, frustrated by his lack of critical and commercial success, turned away from novel writing and towards a new fictional form. He became a magazine writer.

Melville's first published tale, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," appeared in Putnam Magazine, in November and December 1853, and seems to be both an outgrowth of the failure of Pierre as well as a continued exploration of conflicts already suggested in that novel. The narrator of Pierre had begun the section "Young America in Literature" by defiantly claiming: "I write precisely as I please" (244). But such an approach had resulted in severe criticism of the novel as well as of the mind that had produced it. Melville had asked himself if originality of form could compensate for the limitations of language itself, and the answer was no. The act of writing has been reduced to copying in "Bartleby." Similarly, the language of law had also become so rigid as to inhibit its flexibility in dealing with the most pressing conflicts of the period, particularly slavery. "Bartleby" then takes up where the ambiguities had led.

It is surprising to note that despite the wide-ranging interest in "Bartleby," few critics have dealt specifically with the interconnection of representation, reproduction, and law which the text suggests.(1) I believe that after Pierre Melville further questioned the efficacy of writing as the predominant mode of discourse both for interpreting experience and for organizing society and, further, I believe that he concluded that written representation was challenged by a new mimetic mode, the mass-produced image. The consequences of automatic reproduction had affinities with what he regarded as negative developments within the sphere of legal discourse. The simultaneous development of various aspects of photography formed a constellation of innovations closely tied to industrialization, which was fueled by the positivism that also predominated in the legal sphere. The mass production of art, represented by magazine writing, the fusion of the machine and art in the form of photography and the mechanical encoding of law within reproduced copies of copied documents ultimately challenged prior concepts of man, the artist and the foundation of the society of which they were both a part. The suppositions upon which the mechanical reproduction of images were grounded were akin to those upon which legal formalism was based, and these concepts further threatened the predominance of writing as a mode of understanding experience. Ultimately this becomes the tragedy of Bartleby and of the humanity he comes to represent.

Melville, like his juvenile author Pierre, turned to magazine writing. But he expressed disdain for the project in a tone not far removed from Bartleby's famous refusal to copy. In a letter to Evert Duyckinck of February 12, 1851, Melville rejected a request to submit some writing and a daguerreotype of himself to Holden's Dollar Magazine:

How shall a man go about refusing a man?--...I cannot write the thing you want...I am not in the humor to write the kind of thing you need--and I am not in the humor to write for Holden's Magazine... …


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